‘Let’s not kid ourselves, we’re in a wage negotiation’

‘I did not come into politics to destroy justice,’ Lord McNally told lawyers at last night’s Legal Aid question time organised by the Bar Council, writes Jon Robins. The minister of state for justice said that legal aid was ‘one of the proudest achievements of the Attlee government’ and promised that his government would listen to objections raised in some 16,000 responses to the Transforming Legal Aid paper.

‘If you think we have got problems now, try to think what they had when they introduced legal aid,’ McNally said; adding that the debate about our system of publicly-funded law its ‘size, function and focus’ has been going on for a decade. Although the minister said that he was heeding the advice of an unnamed colleague not to ‘buckle’. ‘We have to make the legal professions face up to change that is inevitable,’ he continued. ‘But we have to listen as well.’

  • Lord McNally was sharing a platform with Andy Slaughter, the shadow minister for justice, Steve Hynes, director of the Legal Action Group and Maura McGowan, chair of the Bar Council in a debate chaired by Joshua Rozenberg.

The peer was asked whether he regretted describing the response of the profession to the proposals as ‘hysterical’ on Rozenberg’s Law in Action programme the previous week. ‘When people talk about the consultation being sprung upon the profession, it’s not true,’ he said.

‘When I read a Bar Council press release saying that they will not facilitate a scheme that would “wreck” the criminal justice system or when judges say that these proposals are taking the legal system back to the Magna Carta and that this is “the end of access to justice”, I would remind you all that we are talking about something which will still leave the most generous legal aid scheme in the world.’

McNally said that the Transforming Legal Aid proposals would take the £2 2 billion legal aid budget to £1.5 billion by the end of 2018 . ‘There is ample room for the professions to adjust and meet those challenges just as many other parts of the economy have had to meet the new realities,’ he said.

Thin-skinned
Lord McNally warned that the profession not to be ‘too thin-skinned’. ‘Let’s not kid ourselves we are also in a wage negotiation. You have a vested interest in this outcome. To deny that, I think is absurd.’

Maura McGowan said that the Bar Council understood the need to save money ‘and we have made many constructive suggestions about how to do’. ‘The vested interest we all have is a vested interest in having a properly funded and properly run justice system for the benefit of the people who need it’.

Joshua Rozenberg asked Steve Hynes if the government was ‘deliberately trying to wreck the system because they want to cower and “divide and rule” the profession’. Hynes said that the proposals were ‘just technically inept’. ‘They simply will not work. They will not achieve what they want to achieve. We’re not talking about a wage negotiation. We should be talking about a “justice negotiation”.’

Hynes argued that if the cuts were to go ahead then minister should look to the ‘the higher end, maybe QCs’ who could afford to take ‘a haircut or a wig cut’ in order to retain scope and, for example, keep prison law or judicial review within the scheme.

The minister insisted that the legal aid cuts and ensuing job losses for lawyers needed to be understood in a wider context.

‘In the last three years I have had to see 10,000 Ministry of Justice staff go. I have had to oversee in my department a 23% cut to a £10 billion budget in a department that only spends money – on prisons, probation, court services, legal aid and on staff.’

Hannah Kinch, chair of the Young Barristers Committee, asked McNally how those from lower socio economic groups and without support from their parents would be able to come into the criminal Bar hit bu cuts on the scale as envisaged by the proposals. Rozenberg also questioned whether the proposals could ultimately ‘damage the independence of the judiciary’ by depleting the pool of independent advocates from which the judiciary is drawn.

McNally recognised the concern but added: ‘There are changes that are taking place in the legal professions irrespective of the cuts to legal aid. You can’t put all the burden onto legal aid. That is not what its purpose is for.’

Hynes also took issue with the question and said that ‘another way of putting it would be that the government should subsidise the legal profession so they could be good equal opportunities employers’. ‘You should put your own house in order,’ he said.

Hannah Kinch, given the opportunity to respond, said that the consultation ‘did not take place in a vacuum’ and the MoJ needed to consider the profession’s support for young barristers who come from less well off backgrounds. ‘My father was a hospital porter and nobody in my family had been to university before,’ she said; adding ‘the only reason’ she could take the ‘financial gamble’ to come to the Bar was through a scholarship fund offered by Middle Temple.

Lord McNally argued that the lack of the social mobility in the profession was largely the profession’s own problem. ‘If our changes to legal aid are going to hit BME and women disproportionately, shouldn’t the profession think hard about a structure which, according even to your own analysis, leaves the jobs at the bottom of the profession to BME and women ? That is a distortion in the profession,’ he said. ‘You talk of a profession that is socially mobile but outside of the profession that is not the impression.’

Unsurprisingly, it was an argument that didn’t go down well with everyone in the audience. ‘If you live in a bubble, then you’re not going to convince the rest of the public of your case,’ the minister added.

‘We are happy to adapt,’ insisted Maura McGowan. ‘We do not pretend to live in another century. Nor do we structure the profession in a way to ensure that women and BMA candidates do the poorly paid work.’ The barrister added that she ‘deeply resented’ the suggestion.

 

About Jon Robins

Jon is a journalist and has written about the law and justice for the national papers and specialist press for more than 15 years. Jon is a visiting journalism lecturer at Winchester University, a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln and patron of Hackney Community Law Centre. He has won the Bar Council’s legal reporter of the year award twice (2015 and 2005). Jon is editor and co-founder of LegalVoice

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